Posted by: carolread | February 9, 2010

D is for Development

The term ‘development’ refers to the growth and changes that take place in children from before birth, throughout infancy and childhood until the onset of adolescence and becoming a young adult. Child development has a long and rich history as a complex and fascinating area of academic study, and includes the work of key psychologists and thinkers, such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Erikson and Donaldson.*

In the last post, I suggested the centrality of the child in creating optimal conditions for learning but did not mention the major developmental changes that take place in children throughout the pre-school and primary years. These include physical changes, the development of fine and gross motor skills, mother tongue language development, as well as psychological, social, emotional and intellectual development. For us as teachers, all these areas have a major influence and impact on how we organise our lessons, the kinds of activities we ask our children to do, and the learning outcomes that we can achieve. It therefore helps enormously to be aware of what we can broadly expect in developmental terms with our classes throughout the pre-school and primary years.

Generally, developmental processes have been related to age, although there needs to be a strong ‘health warning’ or proviso that development is a continuum rather than divisible into neat stages. There are also many completely normal differences in the rate of different aspects of development in individual children, depending on a range of factors, such as culture, environment, family and education.

By the time children come to our classes (assuming this is not before the age of 3), they have already arrived at some major developmental milestones, such as learning to walk and talk in their first language(s).  At the risk of over-simplification and over-generalisation, the following chart** notes examples of some other relevant developmental changes and differences that we need to take into account when teaching children of different ages.



Physical and motor development

Social and emotional development

Intellectual development


can run, jump, kick and throw a ball; can control a pencil; can cut paper with chunky scissors; can draw round a template; has limited spatial orientation; cannot sit still for long.

Later: can hop, skip, climb a slide, swing, steer a tricycle or bike; can follow a dotted line with a pencil; can reproduce letters and make shapes from plasticine; can copy writing; can draw people and shapes; can colour carefully; knows their way about the classroom.


strong attachment to parents/carers; keen to please; motor play and beginning of symbolic play; often has imaginary friends; shows signs of empathy and caring; may still have temper tantrums; egocentric and not always willing to share; needs constant approval and encouragement.

Later: wants to be independent; beginning to have ‘best’ friends; developing a sense of humour; can be ‘bossy’ and argumentative; begins to play cooperatively; eager to learn and do ‘real’ work; strong sense of fantasy; perceives good and bad as absolutes; developing conscience.

has very short concentration span; can listen attentively when interested; can sort objects into simple categories; can focus on the ‘here and now’; limited memory strategies.

Later: understands sequences; can recognise missing parts in a puzzle or picture; draws and paints with purpose; can recognise things that are the same or different; understands concept of relative size.


can manipulate a pen and write with increasing speed and ease; can cut following a line; can draw people and shapes with confidence; can copy with greater accuracy and in more detail; knows their way about the school and immediate environment; knows right hand from left hand.

Later: continues to develop fine and gross motor skills in all areas.

shows concern for others; friendships with peers have increasing importance; plays and works cooperatively; has greater self-control; recognises the need to share and take turns; often needs constant approval; can be upset by setbacks.

Later: has greater sense of responsibility; social acceptance by peers has increasing importance;  can understand consequences of actions and behaviour; can begin to formulate solutions to personal problems.

has good sense of past, present and future; grasp of logical problems intuitive at times; tendency to focus on one aspect of problems; can sort, classify and sequence things; understands numbers; can solve concrete problems; can do single, simple mathematical operations.

Later: draws with detail; reads and writes independently;  developing use of memory strategies; can understand conservation of number; can begin to see things from another perspective.


increasing precision and confidence in fine and gross motor skills; enjoys learning new physical skills.


Later: continues to develop in all these areas.

can see things from others’ point of view; less dependent on parent / teacher for immediate nurturing although still needs to feel constant approval.

Later: can organise and plan working and playing cooperatively; may feel more competitive with peers; can have frequent quarrels and ‘bust ups’ with friends; may only want to work with friends of the same gender.

has longer concentration span; can solve concrete problems related to immediate experience; can classify, order, sequence; can organise objects into a series; can understand conservation of mass, weight and volume; can predict, hypothesise, deduce within a clearly defined context; greater use of memory strategies; develops metacognition.

Later: continues to develop in all these areas.


As above, and also developing particular skills e.g. sports, playing a musical instrument.

Later: starts to undergo physical changes related to adolescence.

friends become increasingly important; more subject to peer pressure; less obvious reliance on teacher for approval; greater independence and self-control.

Later:  can experience mood swings; may become more self-conscious or awkward; may have struggle with identity; evidence of more developed conscience; begins to develop ideals; selects role models.

can perform an increasing range of logical mental operations which are context-embedded and/or relate to immediate experience; can follow written instructions independently e.g. to make a model; develops awareness of genre and register.

Later: greater capacity for work and study; begins to develop abstract concepts and reasoning; awareness of language as a system; begins to manipulate ideas in the mind; reason deductively; formulate and test hypotheses; continues to develop metacognition.


Are there any other factors you would suggest adding to the chart?

What are the implications of the chart for the way we teach different age groups?

Please do share your ideas!

* Two examples of readable and informative accounts of the history and theories of child development are:

Meadows S. The Child as Thinker Routledge Books

Smith P., Cowie H. & Blades M. Understanding Children’s Development, Blackwell Publishers

** I have created the chart from a range of sources, such as the above, and including aspects which also concur with my own real life experience as a teacher and parent.


Physical and motor development

Social and emotional development

Intellectual development



  1. Dear Carol,

    I would add to the chart the “Communication/Language” domain or factor . From the very beginning there are cries, gestures, facial expressions,etc., indicating the needs and wants to participate in this world.

    All these factors do not exist in isolation. They are interdependent, and the development in one heavily influences development in the others. I think that it is essential that we understand the importance of the relationship among these factors, since each one of these factors can inhibit or promote the development of the other factors or domains. Therefore, it is key that the child is considered a “whole child”.

  2. Hi Ricardo – Yay!! Thank you so much for writing and for mentioning this crucial area. You’re spot on as always! In fact I had a ‘language development’ column when I first worked on the chart but I left it off in the end for two reasons. The first was that I found it was beginning to look a bit English-centric. I realised that I know far more about mother tongue child language development in relation to English than any other language and I felt a bit dubious about generalizing from this to mother tongue language development in general. The second reason was more pragmatic – it was a bit of a nightmare creating a chart in the blog template and five columns weren’t working so something had to give!! But I’m so glad you’ve raised this and completely agree that it’s a key developmental area that we need to be taking into account in our teaching at all ages. It would be fascinating to hear, for example, in what way L1 development influences the way you teach different age groups.

  3. Hi again, Carol

    “In what way L1 development influences the way you teach different age groups?”

    This brings me to mind “the younger/sooner the better” belief. There has been empirical evidence in this respect that demonstrate “that this is not always the case in formal language learning such as school” (Lasagabaster: 31). The main reason is that apparently children acquire languages implicitly, whereas older students/adults benefit more from explicit teaching. This implies that for young children to learn second languages, early immersion programs or second language naturalistic contexts should be provided since they show a slower rate of acquisition than older starters or late immersion students.

    That is why, in my view, older learners benefit more in the short term in CLIL programs, since formal settings (school) are beneficial to those at a more developed cognitive stage, whereas younger students still lack (apart from plenty of exposure and contact with an L2) the necessary cognitive and learning strategies in an L1 to be transferred to an L2.

    Lasagabaster, D. The Open Applied Linguistics Journal, 2008, Volumen 1

  4. Hi again, Ricardo

    Many thanks for these thoughts and for raising ‘the younger/sooner the better’ issue. You’re quite right that there is a lot of research that shows that younger isn’t any better in formal, drip-feed settings at school and that older learners have major advantages in terms of their cognitive maturity and better developed cognitive strategies and skills which make it possible for them to catch up if they start learning later. However, there is also other research that shows a correlation between length of time studying an FL and proficiency in the long run (Curtain and Pesola, 2004) with particularly positive beneficial effects on the development of memory, listening skills and pronunciation.

    I’m convinced that it is worth starting young at school. There are a whole range of reasons for my views – essentially to do with the characteristics of young children versus older learners, the potential benefits to the individual and also to society in terms of citizenship, tolerance and respect for diversity, and the learning context of primary school which allows language skills to be developed gradually through ‘learning by doing’ rather than the tendency towards a more formal analytic approach at secondary school. I also often feel that in research studies that we never get to hear very much about how the children were taught and it is this that to my mind is a crucial factor in any conclusions that are drawn.

    I completely agree with what you say about older learners benefitting more in the short term from CLIL programs. David Lasagabaster has also done some very interesting research showing the benefits of CLIL as opposed to EFL which I expect you may be familiar with and which I heard him talk about at a conference last year. Like you, I also think that younger children really need to build up their literacy and cognitive skills in L1 and that these will then be transferred to L2 later (the Cognitive Underlying Proficiency in Cummins’ terms). I wonder the age you would put on when it’s a good moment to start a CLIL program?

    Thanks again so much for your great contribution. It seems it’s just you and me having a dialogue but it’s fascinating all the same!

  5. Hi Carol and Colleagues

    I’d like to pick up on the interesting question you raise about a suitable age to start a CLIL programme… I was involed in such a programme last year which many might argue was not CLIL in its truest sense but it was English-medium instruction, specifically the teaching of primary maths and science (the whole ‘in’ cf ‘through’ English distinction).

    I worked in a particular Gulf country on the project as part of a team for 6 months and we were training mainstream teachers in how to provide and embed language support in their content teaching. The children were from the first grade of primary (age 6 upwards) and many were still developing literacy in Arabic which can naturally take a number of years for some YLs. These children were frequently referred to as “the lost generation” by the local press as public examination results in maths and science showed major decline since the move to English-medium. Certain stakeholders and consultants on the project maintained that this was inevitable and we shouldn’t worry too much as we were working on a pilot…

    On reflection, I feel this was highly damaging to the children’s education in that particular context and that those children were denied what I regard as their basic right i.e. education via their first language. The major contextual issues of the English language level of the subject teachers, their initial teacher training (or lack of), the suitability of EAL approaches in the Gulf, literacy levels and conceptual development in Arabic had clearly not been considered in sufficient depth. I felt ethically compromised as a YL teacher and a trainer and would think extremely carefully before embarking on any CLIL project in the future.

    I am aware that the CLIL debate is raging globally and in particular contexts in the world, CLIL has been highly successful, however, while completely agree that there are powerful reasons for teaching English at primary school, the need for care and in-depth research when introducing other school subjects via English medium cannot be overestimated. I’m sure we all agree that children globally have the right to a good education and that English language should never be allowed to be a ‘gatekeeper’ to learners accessing this.

    For those colleagues interested in the whole area of when and how to introduce CLIL, I’d recommend attending (in person or remotely!) Do Coyle et al’s session at the upcoming iatefl conference in Harrogate in April. I believe her principles and insights into ‘sound’ CLIL with primary learners are something all practitioners can learn so much from.

    Certainly food for thought!


  6. Hello Carol, Ricardo and David,

    David, I’ve just read your comments with great interest and was pleased you added that the Gulf programme you were involed in may be considered as ‘not CLIL in its truest sense but it was English-medium instruction.’
    The reason is that CLIL began as a European inititiative in 2002 by Marsh and Langé and then presented with modifications in the Eurydice Report of the European Union ( Eurydice Report, 2006).
    My feeling is that CLIL doesn’t transport to other contexts very easlily and was not initially intended to.
    Non-native speaker teachers with a sound knowledge of their subject matter and a good level of English (CEFR B2+) can and do deliver CLIL programmes, modules or projects very effectively given support and time. The programmes are particularly effective if the schools and teachers themselves select to teach CLIL rather than it being imposed from the top down. (I guess this was the case in the Gulf). A bottom-up approach applies in Catalonia where a model of CLIL flourishes.
    As for whether younger is better, the same caveat applies to all YL language education: if teachers do not have a good level of English and are not commited to the principles of YL or CLIL teaching, then learning suffers. I have seen outstanding CLIL teaching in European classrooms with children from 6 upwards. Teachers have told me that yes, success is partly because of high literacy levels in the L1.

    I too look forward to what Do has to say on 8th April.


  7. Hi Kay

    Thanks for your response, I couldn’t agree more re what you say about the contextual appropriacy of CLIL. Perhaps there could be a whole new C-wheel focussing on the conditions for good CLIL. Alan Mackenzie has written a range of articles and presented on the approach to CLIL in Bangkok in an aptly named session, ‘CLILing me softly in Thailand’ where he emphasised the need for gradual implementation with sufficient scaffolding for teachers and learners. In the Thai context, a single school which was already demonstrating sound primary practice was chosen for CLIL, rather than the large scale top down approach to English-medium instruction adopted in the Gulf i.e. the ‘we’re all going English-medium as of tomorrow’ style heavy handedness…

    I also wholeheartedly echo your comments re the language level of subject teachers and the need for sound awareness of and ability to use child-centred methodologies. I felt the main issue of the project I worked on was that we were delivering training around “language support” as if it occurs in a vaccum, rather than how to embed it within sound primary practice.

    I have seen the Catalan materials and agree that they are strong examples of excellent CLIL practice. Some colleagues on our team did try to adapt them for the Gulf context but ran into obsctacles for the reasons you mention in your post. When you say that CLIL doesn’t transport well to other contexts, this is a crucial message which I feel isn’t getting due attention as countries jump on the English-medium bandwagon. I’m sure many minsitries of education, teachers, parents and children are wishing that this had been considered much more carefully during the decision making process…

    As we know, English-medium instruction is bound up with many complexities relating to national identity. A clear example of this is the Malaysian context and the decision to return to L1 medium for maths and science following the widely publicised and highly political protests. Similarly, in the Gulf, newspapers are publishing reports from angry parents and others who are worried about the impact on Arabic that English medium may have. Given that Arabic is the language of the Quran, this has caused alarm throughout the society. Added to the decline in national exam results, fuel is being added to an already blazing fire… What also disturbed me during our project is that the children themselves were rarely mentioned and never consulted. For me, this is directly contrary to child centredness.

    I’ve shared my story on Carol’s blog as I’d like to hope that other contexts who are considering a move towards English medium might reflect on the far-reaching implications in much more depth. Of course this should not detract from the success stories of sound CLIL in certain European countries and the superb lessons we can learn regarding the ‘right’ ways to approach curriculum innovation in primary schools.

    Good wishes


  8. Hello everyone,

    As far as the assumption “the sooner, the better in foreign languages” is concerned, I agree with you Carol (contrary to Cameron, 2001: 16-17) that certainly the early start carries more pros than cons, at least in the long run.

    What I meant by raising this issue was that “the mere implementation of immersion bilingual approaches [from infant education] guarantees nothing” (Reilly & Medrano, 2009:59). As some of you have mentioned before, key conditions should be met for successful programs to be achieved. I totally agree with Do Coyle in that “there is no single model for CLIL and that for approaches to be effective they have to be contextualised, evaluated and understood in situ “. In fact, as indicated by D. Marsh “Teaching subjects in a foreign language can be done well, or badly”. This goes hand in hand with “bilingual education is about education not bilingualism” (Fishman 1976), since it involves more than motivation and an increased exposure to an L2.

    What I have also noticed is what Medrano and Reilly pointed out when they stated that “the term ‘bilingual education’ [in the Spanish education system] is in itself ambiguous and imprecise”, and I would dare to say that incorrect, since “it does not necessarily imply the balanced use of the two languages in the classroom”. In fact, many parents expect their children to be competent/fluent in English since they are into the Bilingual School program (I’ve overheard conversations of parents talking about the “English school”, when they were referring to my school, which is a “Bilingual” state school in Cantabria, but certainly not English). Perhaps it would be a good idea to follow the CLIL models in the Nederlands where schools which meet certain criteria apparently receive an official certificate allowing them to use the title “Bilingual”.

    Regarding Carol´s questions (the age I would put on to start a [successful] CLIL program), I would start by saying that “in Spain, unlike other European bilingual teaching, these programs do not wait for students to have acquired a basic knowledge of the foreign language” (Halbach, 2009: 19). I think that here literacy is a key point. Literacy in an L2 is not a problem for those students whose L1 is well developed. “The situation changes with those students whose L1 is not well developed and who are beginning to develop skills in an L2”. CLIL, in my view, should start in infant education, as Halbach mentions, “by building up a sound oral foundation before introducing literacy”. In fact, it is observed that those children who do not perform so well in “Cono”/ Science in Spanish do quite well in Science in English, which has to do with the different methodology employed in CLIL, the building of an appropriate context, scaffolding, more teacher support, more time devoted to the comprehension of new ideas, etc. Another question arises with those students with disabilities who struggle in regular monolingual programs. According to Cummins (1976), “not all students benefit from bilingual education, so not everyone should be exposed to this kind of instruction”. And the same, apparently, applies to those students with limited L1 development, which is what the teachers in the USA Exchange Program do with the students from Latin America before moving onto the immersion programs. In Spain, both cases (students with disabilities and with limited L1 development) NORMALLY go into bilingual implemented programs so as to avoid discrimination, but my question is, is this fair, appropriate, convenient, and beneficial for them?

    Richmond CLIL Handbook for Teachers (compiled by Emma Dafouz and Michele C. Guerrini)

    All the best


  9. Hello David, Kay and Ricardo

    Thank you so much for these rich and fascinating contributions – truly wonderful to hear your views and ideas on such a complex and crucial matter which is affecting so many children even as we discuss it.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in the Gulf in such an open and insightful way, David. I can completely understand that you felt ‘ethically compromised’ and it seems clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to CLIL or English-medium instruction or bilingual education (whatever we understand by that) and that every context needs to be considered individually rather than have currently popular approaches applied, especially in an often over-hasty and top-down way.

    Many thanks for flagging up the difference between CLIL and English medium instruction, Kay, and for pointing to the positive experience of the bottom up model in Catalonia. I also completely agree with your caveat about whether younger is better in all YL language education and there’s no doubt that language competence as well as commitment can be an issue at times in some contexts. I’m also glad that you point to high literacy levels in L1 as being a factor in success as I sometimes fear that in the drive and at times obsession with English this aspect of children’s development can be in danger of being sidelined.

    Thanks for raising the problems with definitions of ‘bilingual’, Ricardo, and it’s interesting to see that you also consider literacy a key point. Thanks also for the helpful explanation of Halbach’s views.

    Although I agree with you about CLIL starting in infant education my reasons may perhaps be rather different in the sense that I don’t really see how we can teach infants any other way. Whether we’re main stream general teachers or language teachers at infant level we have to integrate the development of content, concepts, language, cognition – never mind aspects of social, emotional and physical education – as a seamless whole. We can’t just focus on one aspect only. In my experience focussing only on language in an EFL kind of way with infants would never ‘work’ and this is where I find that the CLIL/LT divide rather breaks down or at least is an artificial dvision. I’m not sure whether that’s clear but I hope you see what I mean!

    The other thing that you’re so right to raise is whether all children should be put into CLIL or bilingual programmes and this also links back to David’s earlier point about children having a right to an education in their own language. Your question about the balance between discrimination and fairness, appropriacy is a
    tricky one. I guess ideally there shouldn’t be a judgement on whether one programme is ‘better’ than another and the bottom line that children should be where they will best fulfil their learning potential although I know it doesn’t work like that and also can be perceived as or is unfair and anti-democratic as who’s to decide this and on what grounds. I’d love to know what your views – and experience – on this sensitive issue are.


  10. hi Carol,
    Congrats on your blog. Had a go its excellent and informative too. Looking forward to having you back in Malaysia for more CPD. Will pass your blog add to others in the ‘ELT world’

  11. Hi Jag

    Thanks very much for your kind words – I’m really glad you like it. I’m also really looking forward to coming back to Malaysia in March! Where will we have our ‘rojak’ this time?!

    David, Kay and Ricardo – talking of Do Coyle at IATEFL I forgot to mention in my last message that the ELTJ debate this year sounds like a ‘not to be missed’ session! I quote from the recent IATEFL e-bulletin: “This year’s ELTJ debate on Saturday 10th April will be on the topical and thought-provoking theme: CLIL- an illusion? The speakers are Sheelagh Deller, co-author of Teaching Other Subjects Through English (CLIL), and Amos Paran, Institute of Education, University of London. The debate will be presided over by Keith Morrow.”


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